On November 6, CNN reported that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper plans to urge President Donald Trump not to intervene in the sentences of service members accused of war crimes. Trump is reportedly considering the criminal cases of U.S. soldiers Clint Lorance and Mathew Golsteyn, each accused or convicted of war crimes, following the advice of Fox News host Pete Hegseth. Hegseth has also called for action in the case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was acquitted of premeditated murder in July but was found guilty of posing for a photo with the dead body, causing a reduction in his rank. Hegseth and other Fox personalities have consistently defended these three figures.
Esper’s “robust discussion” with Trump came after Hegseth reported on the November 4 edition of Fox & Friends that “the president of the United States himself” told him that “action is imminent” to help Lorance, Golsteyn, and Gallagher, which Hegseth predicted would happen on or near Veterans Day. As ABC News reported, “the president authorized [Hegseth] to speak openly about these possible decisions as a way of floating the idea prior to the holiday,” according to a member of Lorance’s defense team, which also sent Esper a letter urging presidential intervention.
Despite concern from former military officials that Trump’s intervention could jeopardize “the integrity of the military justice system,” Esper simply told the media that “we’ll see how things play out.” Considering that Trump and Hegseth have used similar rhetoric to discuss these cases, we can guess how Trump might make sure “things play out.”
For his part, Hegseth -- an Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran -- has a history of eyebrow-raising comments about war crimes. In August, he referred to the 2007 massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square by private security contractors working for Blackwater (now rebranded as Academi) as “another day on the job in Iraq,” later hosting Blackwater founder Erik Prince to complain about the unfair prosecutions of his former employees who murdered 17 people. Hegseth has also said the possibility of pardons is “very heartening for guys like me,” that it “could’ve been me” on trial for war crimes, and that if Golsteyn’s actions counted as a war crime, then “put us all in jail”:
Background on cases of accused war criminals
Lorance, who was a first lieutenant in the Army, was found guilty in 2013 of second-degree murder of two civilians in Afghanistan. The New York Times reported that nine members of his platoon testified against Lorance at his trial, and several of them contradicted his testimony in their interviews. One of his subordinates told the Times, “One of the first things [Lorance] said to us was, we are going to go in Gestapo-style with night raids, pull people out of houses, make them afraid of us.” It was also reported in Task & Purpose that Lorance ordered his soldiers to shoot a child who attempted to recover the bodies.
Golsteyn, a major in Army Special Forces, is charged with the murder of an alleged Taliban bomb-maker in Afghanistan in 2010. The Army Times reported that “Golsteyn allegedly told CIA interviewers [in 2011] that he and another soldier took the alleged bomb-maker off base, shot him and buried his remains. He also allegedly told the interviewers that on the night of the killing, he and two other soldiers dug up the body and burned it in a trash pit on base.” Golsteyn was “cleared of a law of armed conflict violation,” but an Army board found his conduct unbecoming of an officer. The Army then reopened the case in 2016 after Golsteyn told Fox News anchor Bret Baier that he killed the man.
Hegseth has aggressively lobbied on Fox & Friends for less accountability of war crimes
Hegseth referred to “military heroes” convicted of “so-called war crimes” before introducing Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, a company whose contractors were convicted of killing unarmed Iraqi civilians. When Hegseth asked Prince why the Pentagon would oppose pardoning war criminals. Prince responded that “they forget who the commander-in-chief is,” adding that “it’s absolutely his right to review bureaucratic overreach and the micromanagement of troops in contact.” Hegseth added that Trump “gets to set … the rules of engagement,” complaining that “somebody in an air-conditioned office in Washington, D.C., second-guesses them.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 11/8/19; The Washington Post, 8/14/19]
A few days earlier, Hegseth complained, “You train someone to go and fight and kill the enemy, then they kill the enemy the way someone doesn’t like, and then we put them in jail.” Co-host Steve Doocy framed the story as “military heroes accused or convicted of war crimes under fire from the very government they volunteered to serve.” Hegseth revealed that he has information from Trump “himself” that “action is imminent” on the cases of Lorance and Golsteyn and also “restoring the rank” of Gallagher. Hegseth said, “This president recognizes the injustice of -- you train someone to go fight and kill the enemy, then they go kill the enemy the way someone doesn’t like, and then we put them in jail.” Hegseth also claimed soldiers accused of war crimes are “treated … like second-class citizens.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 11/4/19]
In October, Hegseth hosted Don Brown, a member of Lorance’s legal team, and Jamie Lorance, Clint Lorance’s cousin. Hegseth compared Lorance to the Navy SEAL members who killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saying that Lorance “did the same thing.” Brown insisted that we “should not be prosecuting warriors who kill the enemy.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends Weekend, 10/27/19]
In September, Hegseth lamented that “many of our nation’s warriors are finding themselves in trouble for doing the job they were hired to do: Fight a war and kill the enemy.” Hegseth argued that then-recently paroled Army National Guard Sgt. Derrick Miller was unjustly prosecuted for murder after he killed an unarmed Afghan civilian in 2010. Hegseth invited Miller on the show to promote his work arguing for clemency for convicted war criminals like himself. Miller claimed that “the constitutional rights of soldiers … are being violated.” Hegseth complained, “As a war fighter, you assume that your military will have your back. Instead, they come after you.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends Weekend, 9/15/19; The Guardian, 7/28/11]
In August, Hegseth defended the Blackwater contractors convicted of murdering Iraqi civilians. Hegseth hosted Gina Keating and Michael Flaherty, the producers of a podcast defending the contractors and allowed them to rewrite the events of Nisour Square, where 17 Iraqi civilians were murdered. Hegseth described the events as “another day on the job in Iraq,” saying that he “encountered situations just like this” when he fought in Iraq. [Fox News, Fox & Friends Weekend, 8/11/19; The New York Times, 10/22/14]
In his first Fox & Friends interview after being found not guilty of murder, Eddie Gallagher profusely thanked Hegseth and Fox News for “being with us from day one,” adding, “You guys backed us from the beginning.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 7/3/19]
In May, Hegseth said that if Golsteyn’s actions meant he committed premeditated murder, “then I did as well. … Put us all in jail.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends Weekend, 5/28/19]
Hegseth strongly endorsed potential pardons for Gallagher (prior to his acquittal), Golsteyn, and Lorance following reports that Trump is considering pardons. Hegseth claimed that he “can’t stand” that The New York Times wrote that these men are “accused of war crimes,” saying, “They’re not war criminals, they’re warriors who have now been accused of certain things that are under review.” Hegseth added that the possibility of pardons is “very heartening for guys like me and others in the service.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends Weekend, 5/19/19]
Hegseth praised Trump for pardoning Michael Behenna, a soldier convicted of killing an Iraqi prisoner. Hegseth said “they knew” the prisoner Behenna killed was “the guy that killed the two Americans,” but just “didn’t have enough evidence,” justifying Behenna and other soldiers’ decision to “interrogate him themselves” before Behenna killed the prisoner. Hegseth again drew parallels between himself and convicted war criminals, claiming Behenna “could’ve been me, could’ve been anybody.” [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 5/7/19; NPR, 5/7/19]